Spontaneity: the mature result of conscience

During the weekly audience on 12 November, the Holy Father delivered the following address to more than ten thousand people gathered in the Paul VI Hall.

1. Today we resume our analysis, which started a week ago, on the mutual relationship between what is "ethical" and what is "erotic". Our reflections follow the pattern of the words spoken by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount, with which he referred to the commandment "You shall not commit adultery" and, at the same time, defined "lust" ("looking lustfully") as "adultery committed in the heart". We see from these reflections that "ethos" is connected with the discovery of a new order of values. It is necessary continually to rediscover in what is "erotic" the nuptial meaning of the body and the true dignity of the gift. This is the role of the human spirit, a role of an ethical nature. If it does not assume this role, the very attraction of the senses and the passion of the body may stop at mere lust devoid of ethical value, and man, male and female, does not experience that fullness of "eros", which means the aspiration of the human spirit towards what is true, good and beautiful, so that what is "erotic" also becomes true, good and beautiful. It is indispensable, therefore, that ethos should become the constituent form of eros.

Fruit of discernment

2. The above-mentioned reflections are closely connected with the problem of spontaneity. It is very often thought that it is ethos itself that takes away spontaneity from what is erotic in man's life and behaviour; and for this reason detachment from ethos is demanded "for the benefit" of eros. Also the words of the Sermon on the Mount would seem to hinder this "good". But this opinion is erroneous and, in any case, superficial. Obstinately accepting it and upholding it, we will never reach the full dimensions of eros, and that inevitably has repercussions in the sphere of "praxis", that is, in our behaviour and also in the concrete experience of values. In fact, he who accepts the ethos of the enunciation of Matthew 5:27-28 must know that he is also called to full and mature spontaneity of the relations that spring from the perennial attraction of masculinity and femininity. This very spontaneity is the gradual fruit of the discernment of the impulses of one's own heart.

Need to be aware

3. Christ's words are severe. They demand from man that, in the sphere in which relations with persons of the other sex are formed, he should have full and deep consciousness of his own acts, and above all of interior acts; that he should be aware of the internal impulses of his "heart", so as to be able to distinguish them and qualify them maturely. Christ's words demand that in this sphere, which seems to belong exclusively to the body and to the senses, that is, to exterior man, he should succeed in being really an interior man; that he should be able to obey correct conscience; to be the true master of his own deep impulses, like a guardian who watches over a hidden spring; and finally to draw from all those impulses what is fitting for "purity of heart", building with conscience and consistency that personal sense of the nuptial meaning of the body, which opens the interior space of the freedom of the gift.

Learning reactions of his own heart

4. Well, if man wishes to respond to the call expressed by Matthew 5:27-28, he must learn, with perseverance and consistency, what is the meaning of the body, the meaning of femininity and masculinity. He must learn this not only through an objectivizing abstraction (although this, too, is necessary), but above all in the sphere of the interior reactions of his own "heart". This is a "science", which cannot really be learned only from books, because it is a question here in the first place of deep "knowledge" of human interiority. In the sphere of this knowledge, man learns to distinguish between what, on the one hand, composes the multiform riches of masculinity and femininity in the signs that come from their perennial call and creative attraction, and what, on the other hand, bears only the sign of lust. And although these variants and nuances of the internal movements of the "heart" can, within a certain limit, be confused with one another, it must be said, however, that interior man has been called by Christ to acquire a mature and complete evaluation, leading him to discern and judge the various movements of his very heart. And it should be added that this task can be carried out and is really worthy of man.

In fact, the discernment of which we are speaking has an essential relationship with spontaneity. The subjective structure of man shows, in this area, a specific richness and a clear distinction. Consequently, a noble gratification, for example, is one thing, while sexual desire is another; when sexual desire is linked with a noble gratification, it differs from desire pure and simple. Similarly, as regards the sphere of the immediate reactions of the "heart", sexual excitement is very different from the deep emotion with which not only interior sensitivity, but sexuality itself reacts to the total expression of femininity and masculinity. It is not possible here to develop this subject further. But it is certain that, if we affirm that Christ's words according to Matthew 5:27-28 are severe, they are also severe in the sense that they contain within them the deep requirements concerning human spontaneity.

At the price of self-control

5. There cannot be such spontaneity in all the movements and impulses that arise from mere carnal lust, devoid as it is of a choice and of an adequate hierarchy. It is precisely at the price of self-control that man reaches that deeper and more mature spontaneity with which his "heart", mastering his instincts, rediscovers the spiritual beauty of the sign constituted by the human body in its masculinity and femininity. Since this discovery is enhanced in the conscience as conviction, and in the will as guidance both of possible choices and of mere desires, the human heart becomes a participant, so to speak, in another spontaneity, of which "carnal man" knows nothing or very little. There is no doubt that through Christ's words according to Matthew 5:27-28, we are called precisely to such spontaneity. And perhaps the most important sphere of "praxis"—concerning the more "interior" acts—is precisely that which gradually prepares the way towards such spontaneity.

This is a vast subject which will be opportune for us to take up another time in the future, when we will dedicate ourselves to showing what is the real nature of the evangelical "purity of heart". We conclude for the present saying that the words of the Sermon on the Mount, with which Christ calls the attention of his listeners—at that time and today—to "lust" ("looking lustfully"), indirectly indicate the way towards a mature spontaneity of the human "heart", which does not suffocate its noble desires and aspirations, but, on the contrary, frees them and, in a way, facilitates them.

Let what we said about the mutual relationship between what is "ethical" and what is "erotic", according to the ethos of the Sermon on the Mount, suffice for the present.

L'Osservatore Romano November 17, 1980
Reprinted with permission